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The Way We Make Sense by Dawn Karima Pettigrew

Native American writer Dawn Karima Pettigrew‘s “The Way We Make Sense” is the story of successive generations of native people making sense of their lives in a world that, at best, has no understanding of their values or culture. It is first of all the story of the Redpaint family, the patriarch of which is willing to offer his daughter Indiana as collateral for a rodeo entry fee. When he loses, his wife sends Indiana into what the girl can only interpret as exile—life far from Oklahoma, the only home she knows. Subsequently raised by her grandparents in North Carolina, Indiana finds redemption in giving birth to and raising her own daughter.

Manna’s life is defined in some ways by her mother’s losses, and she in turn finds meaning in an exile of her own, wandering all the way to New Mexico. Here she learns who she is, in a makeshift family that includes a misplaced baby, a Vietnam veteran with his grass-dancing nephew, and the ghosts of Hollywood Indians. Here it is that Manna learns the truths of love and of loss. “You take parts of other people, too,” Bill Lawton tells Manna. “That’s the lie, that you can run and leave everything and everybody else behind” (Pettigrew 91). Returning finally to North Carolina, Manna finds what —and whom—she has been running from, and makes peace with her past.

Yet, it is not the characters alone that enthrall the reader. Pettigrew weaves her story with gossamer filaments, suggesting here, hinting there, ending abruptly or pulling the reader just one step further, then another, then another. She alternates narrative with poetry that makes one want to know, want to understand, and want to love.

White boys sleep through your screaming
It is us
Red men
Who sing you back to sleep
Rock you until you remember to cry
Wet our mouths with salt and water
Kissing the monsters out of your memories
(Pettigrew 57)

Pettigrew’s lyricism, her ability to weave in such poetry with the grim realities of trailer parks and food stamps and drunken vigils and to lift all of life’s gritty realities into something that “makes sense,” is breathtaking. It is a book to read and reread, and hopefully take to heart.

Buy this book: The Way We Make Sense

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